Analysis 16:06 18/01/2014

U.S. interests in Azerbaijan, still vital?

“The importance of not just Azerbaijan but the Central Caucasus in general for the US is in decline. Five years from now, Azerbaijan will be in a lower stature in terms of American interests and priorities than it has today, and significantly lower than it has been in the past.” Wayne Merry, a senior fellow for Europe and Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council, said in an interview with Azerbaijani news agency Turan’s Washington correspondent.

Observing the current political developments of U.S. foreign policy and its relations with Azerbaijan, it can be claimed that Merry has a point, that Azerbaijan is not anymore as attractive for the U.S. as it was before.

The U.S. main interests in Azerbaijan were conditioned by the country’s geopolitical position; that is its strategic location and natural resources; energy resources of Caspian basin, the region’s proximity to Russia, Iran and particularly Afghanistan.

The events of 2013, specifically the launch of U.S- Iran diplomatic talks and expected U.S. troop withdrawal and disengagement from Afghanistan would completely shift the strategic positions of “the figures on chessboard” and the whole system of the regional politics itself.

Current talks between the presidents of Afghanistan and U.S. on possible security deal have got into a stalemate. Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan continuously restrains the signing of security deal. Whereas White House Press secretary Jay Carney said that “the government of Afghanistan has only weeks and not months to sign the security agreement with the U.S.” Otherwise, if Karzai continues to delay the signing of the agreement, by the end of 2014 all the U.S and NATO troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan. As CNN reports “Obama has, in recent months, grown increasingly frustrated in dealing with Afghan President and according to senior administration official is seriously considering withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014”.

Though it has been reported that U.S. may use the Azerbaijani territory for troop withdrawal, even if done so, it is not likely that it will leave its troops in Azerbaijan for a long period. Theodore Karasik, director of research and consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis told the Voice of Russia that in this case there may be clashes of interests in the region and that’s why “all the issues will all come to the forefront and will have to be negotiated.” He added that “U.S. troops in Azerbaijan may contribute to the rise of tensions in the region because of the position of Russia and Iran.”

Russia, striving to regain its former power in the post soviet space would make efforts to block the stay of the forces in the country, while U.S. troop presence in Azerbaijan, neighboring country of Iran, risks to deteriorate recently achieved “peace” between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, the recent meeting of the president of Azerbaijan and the NATO Security General revealed Azerbaijan’s decision to support Afghanistan in the new mission of training and consulting of Afghan security forces after 2014. Meanwhile it has also been stated that Azerbaijan will reduce its presence in Afghanistan in post -2014 period.

Thus, when it is not likely that the U.S. will leave its troops in Azerbaijan, it also cannot be claimed that Azerbaijan completely loses its importance for the U.S. However, one thing is clear; the nature and range of the services Azerbaijan is committed to carry out in Afghanistan will differ both in the nature and the importance for the U.S.

Major event, an “historical one” can be considered the rapprochement between U.S and Iran, that ends Iran’s isolation. American-Iranian reconciliation would gradually change the geopolitical environment of the region; it would end the monopoly of Azerbaijan as an alternative energy source and transit route in the region. There would be an increase of oil exports from Iraq and Iran, thus contributing to the lowering of world oil prices. The reconciliation would allow the construction of oil pipelines from China and Kazakhstan to Iran. As it is reported in Natural Gas Europe independent organization’s website some European states want to buy Iran’s natural gas. Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz declared that Iran is planning to build a big pipeline to deliver gas to Europe and five European states already plan to buy gas from Iran.

Consequently, it becomes clear that U.S. - Iran rapprochement not only reduces the significance of current regional actors in provision of security of the region but opens door for new transit routes and alternative sources of energy. In this environment Azerbaijan loses its attractiveness as energy source as well as transit route not only for the U.S. but for the entire West, given that according to recent estimates, as it is reported in American newspaper Financial Times, only 2% of Europe total gas consumption will come from Azerbaijan.

Although the U.S was closely engaged in fostering the global oil supply from the Caspian energy resources to Europe, the recent statistics make it obvious that it is not the case anymore. U.S investments in Azerbaijan reported a decline starting from 2009, decreasing from $117.6 million to $73.8 million in 2011. U.S. foreign assistance to Azerbaijan as well decreased from $26.4 million in 2011 to $16.22 million in 2013. U.S. criticism of 2013 Azerbaijani presidential elections, calling them “not free and fair”, and its harsh approach to the unjustified arrest of election monitoring organization chief had its footprint on U.S. - Azerbaijani relations.

Conclusively, the events taking place in the world politics in recent years, U.S. foreign policy shifts, change of priorities, and scandalous presidential elections of Azerbaijan had their direct impact on U.S. - Azerbaijani relations. U.S. - Iran reconciliation, prospects of new sources of energy and shortcomings in Azerbaijani energy projects have made Azerbaijan less attractive for the United States of America than it was before. However, as long as the situation around Afghanistan is not clear cut, Azerbaijan continues to preserve its role as a strategic player in the region.

Nelli Minasyan

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